[This is the second of a series of articles leading up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2021]
Part Two: Predators
Helen’s* family was stunned by her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. They were equally stunned when that diagnosis didn’t protect her or her family from the ravages of elder financial exploitation.
A family vacation home was sold and the proceeds disappeared. Banking and investment accounts vanished or the balances diminished in an unexplained plummet. Like many elder victims, Helen became increasingly defensive, evasive, and confused. But it’s not only the ailing who can be exploited. The insidious truth is that healthy elders (defined as anyone over 60 years of age) can become victims, too.
Financial scams are limited only by the predator’s imagination and no prior relationship between the victim and predator is needed. Scams can come in the form of phone calls by persons alleging to be a family member (most often a grandchild) in some kind of urgent trouble or a customer service representative offering a ‘refund’ that cleverly morphs into the victim sending money (frequently in the form of gift cards) to cover an ‘error.’ The Internet can be a minefield of scams only a click away. Mail-based fraud may take the form of charity or political solicitations. Unscrupulous home maintenance professionals may also take advantage of elders, where sneaky perpetrators pad invoices or submit false bills altogether. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a trove of articles to help identify and protect yourself or loved ones from phone-, Internet-, and mail-based scams at aarp.org.
We can begin to protect our elders from nameless or faceless predators with advice like, “Don’t give out personal or financial information over the phone or unfamiliar websites,” or, “Don’t respond to direct mail solicitations.” Calling your local resource center or council on aging for referrals to trusted professionals or home repair businesses is also a line of protection. Yet, elder financial exploitation is one of the most under-reported crimes. Why? Because it’s a crime of access and opportunity most often enacted by a family member or a close family friend.
The Trusted Predator
So, who are the people who exploit others?
They are the sons, daughters, spouses, friends, grandchildren, landlords, or professionals who have sat with you on a sunny afternoon. They have access to the elder, most often by living with them or in close proximity to them. Unlike the fraud schemes mentioned above, they have a close relationship with the elder, and it’s that relationship that becomes weaponized.
Helen’s case was a perfect storm of bad actors. What began as self-serving acts of one individual tragically became a case of predatory guardianship. As fictionalized in the Netflix movie, I Care A Lot, professionals charged with protecting vulnerable adults are well-positioned to exploit their charges. Most conservators or guardians have sufficient state-mandated oversight to eliminate abuses, but even well-intentioned tools can add to problems. (More about guardianships in a later column.)
Widowed years before, Helen lived away from family in a retirement community. Isolation from supportive family and friends is a key contributor to abuse. For Helen’s family, what had seemed like an ideal situation of independent living added to her vulnerability. Removed from the questioning eyes of family, Jane* began to exert influence. Small transgressions went unaddressed. Jane became emboldened and began to “wean” Helen from her other relationships, further embedding herself into Helen’s affairs. Jane became an indispensable friend, displaying hurt if not included in Helen’s plans. Soon, the family realized Helen had little privacy from Jane, and Helen became evasive when questioned about her friend.
Isolation can be physical, but it can be psychological as well.
Elizabeth’s* youngest daughter, Mary*, didn’t understand the increasingly large checks written to her brother, Craig*. When questioned, Elizabeth withdrew, mentioning how angry Craig had become at Mary’s inquiries. Elizabeth struggled to “keep the peace,” and began to avoid Mary in fear of making Craig mad.
Jane and Craig used their access to begin separating the vulnerable elder from people or institutions instrumental in the healthy support of that elder. Once isolated, the opportunities for their actions to go unquestioned increased. Perpetrators of financial exploitation are most often a close family member like a husband or grandchild. They leverage the loss or worsening of their relationship as a weapon–“do this or else”–or as a gaslighting wedge, “Don’t you remember? You owed me money for gas and groceries.” Or worse. “Oh, these documents? Trust me, it’s nothing. Sign here.” What the victim’s family sadly finds out too late, is that one signature can make a lifetime of savings disappear.
A ‘Justifiable’ Crime
People who exploit others often do not see their actions as wrong. Jane began her theft feeling Helen had “enough” money and, with her failing health, would “never miss it.” Craig felt entitled to Elizabeth’s money through a misguided combination of “oldest son” and a sense of entitlement. Observed from the outside, exploitative relationships don’t have the typical red flags one would expect in an abusive relationship. Perpetrators of elder financial abuse and exploitation enjoy the cloak of “private family affair” that makes questioning details by a concerned person uncomfortable. An addicted child or cash-poor son may be sheltered by a parent reluctant to disclose painful family secrets.
Helen was surely vulnerable and the family was justifiably upset at the changes of her financial health, and, as a result, their inheritances. Yet, Jane felt justified and protected. Mary felt anger toward her mother and brother for continuing a pattern all knew was wrong.
Once diagnosed, Helen’s family reached out to others for help, only to uncover a shocking underbelly of corruption. Mary found stopping her mother’s financial drain had a surprising twist.
How and why?
The next articles will provide some answers.
*All names have been changed upon the request of the families.
Elder abuse is a crime that can be physical, medical, financial, or emotional/behavioral in nature. Neglect and abandonment of an elder can be crimes as well. If you or a loved one is the subject of suspected abuse, call your local adult protective services to speak confidentially with a knowledgeable expert.